Vietnam

Vietnam: Wonderful and Strange!

Brooke and Phil at Ha Long Bay!As our time in Vietnam has come to a close, we are realizing some important things.  This is truly a developing nation.  I bet it was far different 20 years ago and I’m sure it will be vastly changed 20 years from now.  In spite of that (or perhaps because of it), it has also been a wonderful place to visit and would be a great vacation destination for anyone looking for an exciting and interesting place to go.

As we’ve said before, we have been staying in a section of Hanoi called the Old Quarter.  The narrow streets were developed long ago when foot traffic was the only transportation.  Today, the combination of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and walkers stretch the limits of these skinny roads.  In addition, the sidewalks where one might walk are filled with shops, people eating and drinking as well as parked motorbikes.  We looked at a few of the markets, seeing what souvenirs we could get from our time in Hanoi.   So much of what they sell is clothing and shoes.  At one store we saw a big pile of Tom’s, the canvas shoes which I love.  The concept with these is when you buy a pair, one pair is donated to a person in need.  When I saw this pile of shoes, my first instinct was that they are all fakes.  I considered them, and as we walked away I said to Phil, “I have a feeling that there will be no donation to the needy when I buy those shoes.  As a matter of fact, those may be the ones that have been donated.”  Now, I certainly am not getting on a moral high horse and we did buy some  souvenirs.  However, with the rumors of child/forced labor that abound in countries which manufacture goods cheaply, we have found ourselves a little more aware of what we purchase.

Four is too many!

This photo is a little grainy, but can you see the two kids on the bike with their parents? No helmets, which is very typical.

Another huge sign that this is a developing nation is the general lack of safety regulations. It isn’t that we felt unsafe being there at all.  Quite the contrary.  However, the streets are filled with motorbikes, some packed four deep and children inevitably are rarely wearing helmets.  When we asked about helmet laws we  were told they are required starting at age 8.  Age 8!  The only protection for the little ones is the arms of their parents.  On several occasions, we saw children sitting on the laps of their parents in the front seat of a car, as well.  We also inquired about the driving age and after they hemmed and hawed for a moment, they told us it is 18, but no one really sticks to that.  The road regulations are not the only place where we felt this lack of safety enforcement.  It is not at all uncommon to be walking down the street and have electrical sparks shower down from work which was being done overhead.  No fencing to block the sidewalk, no sign of warning.  On more than one occasion I jumped out of the way so as not to be right underneath the spray of sparks.

The other thing that really seals it as being a developing nation is the lack of potable drinking water and the general conditions of the public toilets.  Of course, it is not uncommon to go somewhere internationally and not be able to drink the water.  However, along with that are the scams that arise from bottles of water being reused and refilled with the local water and then being sold as new.  In order to make consumers feel safe, companies like Aquafina and Evian put safety seals around the caps which ensure it has not been opened before.  In addition, the public restrooms are by and large gross.  This was to be expected.  However, the lack of toilet paper and soap only add to the feeling that things in Hanoi just aren’t very clean and visitors have to be careful not to spread germs and get sick while here.

Amazing viewsI hope I haven’t scared you off, because even with all that said, Hanoi has been one of my favorite stops on the trip so far.  We were able to take a day trip to Ha Long Bay, a group of 1900 tiny islets about three hours south-east of Hanoi.  It was far to go for a day trip, and it would have been better if we had done a 2 night/3 day which is their specialty, but we’re working with tight timing.  We had a delicious lunch on board the boat, then traveled around the bay.  Our first stop was a traditional fishing village, with small homes permanently on the water.  These homes only have generators for electricity and the children only attend school up to 8th grade.  (There is a one room schoolhouse on the water and if they want to go to the upper grades they have to move to the mainland.)  We were particularly interested in the wide array of houseboats, including some made with brick and mortar.  Sadly, having people live in the bay means it is littered with trash; however, further out in the water it is absolutely gorgeous.  We made our way over to “Heavenly Cave” and walked around looking at different rock formations.  Honestly, the tour itself was a little underwhelming, but being out on the water made it all worthwhile.  It would be a wonderful place to come for a longer stay.

Just a small section of Ha Long Bay

Just a small section of the former prison, this was one of two rooms of exhibits on American POWs. John McCain’s flight suit can be seen in the rear of the room.

Our final few hours in Hanoi found us doing two things neither of us is likely to forget soon.  First, we went to Ha Loa Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. This was the infamous jail where many American pilots who were shot down during the Vietnam war were taken and held prisoner for several years.  What we didn’t know is that this prison was built during the French occupation of Vietnam and was first used to imprison Vietnamese nationalists in wretched conditions.  Most of the museum focused on the horrible abuses of the French towards any Vietnamese fighting for freedom.  Exhibit after exhibit spoke of the heroism of the Vietnamese Comrades and the torturous, villainous behavior of the French.  We kept waiting for any mention of the role this prison played during the war with the U.S.  Just when we thought it wouldn’t be mentioned at all, it finally came at the end of the exhibits.  Two rooms housed photos and artifacts “showing the conditions of the Americans” during their time here. It was filled with photos of them playing volleyball, basketball and putting up Christmas decorations.  It focused a great deal on the days when the American P.O.W.s were released, even mentioning the fact that they were given a “souvenir” of their time here.  We could hardly believe it.  They essentially made it look like summer camp.  There was not one picture of the prisoners in a jail cell.  At the end, it even said the Americans were grateful for the human treatment they received.  Unbelievable! That is not the same account we have heard as Americans–just read about the experiences of Senator John McCain while he was imprisoned there.  This illustrated another example of the one-sided information that we have come to expect from the museums here.

Brooke outside of Ho Chi Minh’s grand mausoleum

The final, most fascinating and most creepy thing we’ve done here is visit the Ho Chi Minh Complex, most notably the mausoleum.  Just like other important communist leaders Stalin and Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s body has been preserved, encased in glass, and is on display for public viewing.  This seemed like a unique experience that we just couldn’t miss.  First of all, the lines stretched outside the complex and down the street.  It was packed with people, partially because it was a holiday weekend.  Luckily, the lines moved very quickly and we were up to the mausoleum within 10 minutes.  We were told going in that we should wear long pants, covered shoulders and close-toed shoes.  It was very important that we be respectful.  Upon entering the mausoleum, I was instructed to take my sunglasses off the top of my head and others were told to remove hats.  As we filed around Ho Chi Minh’s body, gawking in horrified fascination, the guards moved us swiftly along.  We were not allowed to stop or walk too slowly.  The general feeling was one of excitement and intrigue.  We were afraid people would be more reverent and seem like they were in a sacred place, but there was really just a sense of curiosity.  As we walked outside, we immediately discussed what a strange experience that was.  Uncle Ho wasn’t looking too great, probably because he’s been dead since 1969.  By all accounts, this kind of fanfare is the last thing he would have wanted and doesn’t really fit with the kind of life he led.  All in all, I’m so glad we went because it is such a strange thing to do.

Adios VietnamAnd now, sadly our time in Vietnam must end.  We really wish we had more time and we are already planning to come back.  The people here are so friendly, the food has been awesome, and there is so much to see and do.  Now, we head off for a very brief 2 days in Singapore.  Interestingly, no other city has brought such a variation of opinion than Singapore.  Some people love it and say we’ll need more time.  Others have told us to skip it all together.  We met a British family living in Singapore who told us two days is just right.  We’ll go with that!

-Brooke

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Landmarks, Museums, Unusual Experiences, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hanoi by Night

Masks for sale!As our travels continue in Vietnam, we’re quickly realizing that there is as much to do in the evening as there is in the day. Hanoi comes to life at night, but in a completely different way than Hong Kong or Tokyo. Instead of neon lights and tall lit buildings, you’ll see outdoor markets, bustle people and the light casting onto the street from stores and bars open late into the evening. We’ve managed to see a Water Puppet Show, have some amazing meals and even caught a ride on the back of one of Hanoi’s ubiquitous motorcycles.

Vietnamese Water Puppets!Water Puppetry, a subject completely unknown to us, is apparently an ancient Vietnamese art form that dates back centuries. Conveniently enough, there is a Water Puppetry Theater located just a stone’s throw away from our hotel. Mix in a ticket price of just five bucks and it we couldn’t resist a visit. We place the 45-minute performance, with several shows an evening in front of a small crowd of mostly tourists, firmly under the very entertaining and very unique categories. I can’t remember the last time I took in a puppet show, but this is the first time I’ve seen one where dozens and dozens of custom-made puppets perform in and on top of a pool of water. Everything from dragons to young, umbrella-wielding maidens to hunters skip, shake and dance seamlessly around the pool while executing some complicated manuevers by unseen puppeteers. These people-behind-the-curtain twist and bend rods while knee-deep in water behind screens. The figures themselves are well decorated, fun and nimble. They move with ease and make use of the water. Each act is accompanied by musicians who sing and play various instruments just off stage. There was as much talent in the music as there was in the puppetry which is why it was Brooke’s favorite part of the evening. Sure, the whole performance was in Vietnamese but you get the general gist of each plot. Very cool to see, but also kind of glad it was less than an hour.

Hanoi's New Day RestaurantOne of the real highlights of Vietnam so far has been the cuisine. We’ve enjoyed two amazing meals at the New Day restaurant and the Quan An Ngon. Who needs a five star dining experience (a moist towlette will run you an extra twenty cents on the bill) when you have busy, friendly hotspots occupied by locals and tourists alike? Although the spacious Quan An Ngon was much larger and mostly outdoor, both restaurants were tasty, mind-boggingly inexpensive, delivered amazing service and felt about as authentic as you can get. At New Day, we were encouraged to swing through the kitchen so we could get a first hand look at dishes before we ordered. Menus included everything from various soups, fried pork and chicken dishes, barbecued anything, dumplings, noodles, glutenous rice balls. All delivered by waiters who smiled non-stop and were eager to practice their English. I’m not doing it justice, but each night, there has been something wonderful about these sensational dishes showing up in front of us. We never quite know what we’re going to get, but dinner has surpassed expectations each time.

Brooke and the mopedWe ended one of our nights with a unique experience. After witnessing the plethora of motorbikes zoom around Hanoi for the last few days, we were done being spectators and ready to see what a ride really felt like. Not quite brave (foolish?) enough to rent our own, we opted to let someone else drive. Once again, the incomparable staff at the Hanoi Moment hooked us up. Late in the evening, two of the staff took a break, conjured two spare helmets, and pulled their bikes around font and invited us to hop on the back. We spent the next 45 minutes getting a scenic tour of Hanoi and the experience of zipping through the busy streets among thousands of other bikes. To be fair, we’re pretty sure our guides went easy on the throttle for our sake. First of all, it is a lot less intimidating and a lot more fun being on a bike than to be in the street trying to dodge one. Since all of the motorbikes move at a manageable cruising speed, navigating, maneuvering and avoiding everything from pedestrians to other bikes seemed easy. It’s remarkable: you ride so close to the swarm of other bikes, that you almost have to resist the urge to reach out and grab ahold of any one of them. As a nice bonus, the cool breeze helped to counteract the oppressive humidity. After our ride, we arrived at one conclusion back at the hotel: these bikes are a damn enjoyable and efficient way to get around Hanoi.

We’re thoroughly enjoy the pulse of this different city. Hands down, Hanoi is unlike any place we’ve visited so far. Tomorrow? Ha Long Bay and getting a glimpse of the late Ho Chi Minh and, ah, how he looks today.

-Phil

Ending our first night with drinks at the Avalon’s roof top bar

Phil ready for a meal at Quon An Ngon! In Asia, we’ve found that parties of two are often seated with other random parties of two. And for some reason…you only get ONE menu no matter how large your group.

Another look at the full "stage" of the Water Puppet Theater. Check out the dragon "swimming" around!

Another look at the full “stage” of the Water Puppet Theater. Check out the dragon and bird “swimming” around!

Categories: At Night, City Visits, Diversions, Eating, Surprises, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Hanoi, Vietnam and 2 Million Motorcycles

Shrine to turtles in the middle of the lake in Old QuarterHello from Hanoi! After a quick and easy flight on Vietnam Airways departing from the modern, giant Hong Kong Airport, we quickly made it to Hanoi. Departing Hong Kong was easy- having the flexibility to fly on a Wednesday afternoon paid off in cost and ease. We’re becoming quite excellent at navigating airports. And we haven’t had to pay any of the infamous departure taxes when leaving a country. So far, our airports have included Dayton, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Auckland, Guangzhou, Tokyo, Hong Kong and now Hanoi. All in just under one month. Whew.

After landing and clearing immigration with ease (we really haven’t had a single question in any country yet), we leaped into a taxi which we had set up in advance and was waiting for us. This was a nice bonus because we have already repeatedly been warned of shady taxi services throughout Hanoi. While Vietnam is, by and large, a very safe country, there seems to be no shortage of scams and hustles by opportunistic taxi drivers, “tour guides” and others. We’ve seen drivers everywhere clamoring for business, but with a little wherewithal, a list of reputable companies and our preference for walking, it hasn’t been a problem. Brooke and I made a quick journey from the airport to the heart of Hanoi in the Old Quarter. Along the way into town, we saw what we think were buffalo just lazily hanging close to the side of the road.

Endless Motorcycles!One of our first impressions of Vietnam? Motorcycles. I know that may sound odd, but I’ve never seen so many mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles in my life. I’m talking by a factor of ten. These two-wheeled vehicles are the preferred method of transport around Hanoi. Cars, bicycles and public buses all come in a distant second. It is kind of insane. Drivers take a liberal interpretation of traditional road rules and stop lights are few and far between. The constant sound of tiny horns dot the environment. Some scooters carry up to a family of four wedged on to the bikes – with young children in precarious positions conspicuously lacking helmets. With all this endless motorcycle traffic, being a pedestrian is an art form. Brooke and I have had to re-learn how to simply cross the street while negotiating an endless sea of bikes. The trick is to walk slowly and with confidence. And to take a leap of  faith that the helmet-clad drivers (who mostly seem to be paying good attention) are not going to run smack into you. It’s kind of thrilling. Still, we’re not quite ready to navigate the major intersections just yet.

National Day is right around the cornerOur hotel is smack dab in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. A section of Vietnam’s capital that is packed with people, shops and more motorcycles on streets that zig and zag in each direction. So far, some of the best sight-seeing has just been walking these streets. Short, bright blue and plastic stools filled with residents dining on simple, makeshift meals prepared on the street. Tiny storefronts that open up to the sidewalk and range across all sorts of businesses from sewing machine repair to T-shirt sales. These small two-story store fronts sometimes also double as people’s homes. Initially, we also thought we saw store owners and residents burning paper garbage on the sidewalk in small homemade fires, but later learned that this is actually part of Yu Lan – a religious ritual offering that happens over the course of this month. Vietnam truly feels more different from any place we’ve been yet – light years from Hong Kong. Hanoi feels raw and rugged, but cheerful and busy. A developing nation that’s driven to keep developing. I’m pretty sure that this is one of the most exotic places I’ve visited. And it’s an exhilarating place that we already kind of love.

On top of all that, we’ve arrived just before National Day on September 2nd – Vietnam’s Independence Day. The town is dressed and decorated with banners, lights and more. It looks like it’s going to be a great holiday that we’re missing by one day.

Brooke, motorcycles and humidity!As you might imagine, it is friggin’ humid here. Our heat wave continues. A 20 minute walk earns you a healthy glow of sweat almost pouring from your body. Add the heat from the exhaust of a parade of motorcycles (Hanoi certainly isn’t going to win the award for cleanest award or most environmentally friendly city) and street fires, and everything just gets that much hotter. It feels like we could use another three showers a day. Fret not: we’ve built in lots of breaks at cafes and restaurants throughout the day. It’s amazing how much beer you find yourself drinking when you can’t drink any of the local water. Refreshing and inexpensive. Our preference has been for the local Beer Ha Noi. The other commonly found beer, Tiger from Singapore, tastes like a poor man’s Bud Light.

We continue to blow through Southeast Asia taking in as much as we can each day.  We’re not alone – tourists are larger in number here, but most of the Western faces we’ve seen tend towards the younger side. A million discoveries await us in Vietnam. Hanoi brings food, culture, beer, history, coffee, baguette and more. Ready to open our eyes, clear our mind, expand our horizons and see something new. I can’t wait to explore Hanoi tomorrow.

-Phil

First Meal in Hanoi

Our “Welcome to Hanoi” Dinner at the wonderful local New Day restaurant. Two big beers will help knock the heat off!

The Old Quarter At Night

The Old Quarter At Night- Check out all of the endless bikes in the background! Click enlarge and the photo looks even more vivid! 

Categories: City Visits, Reflections, Self Guided Tours, Transportation, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Exploring Hanoi

Hanoi StreetsOne of the things we are finding most wonderful about visiting Vietnam is how incredibly affordable everything is.  Seriously, if you are looking to take an interesting and exciting vacation, this just may be the place to go.  It has history, culture, shopping, beaches, and a whole lot to just observe and digest.

Because it is so affordable here, we are able to stay in a wonderful hotel for a reasonable price.  The Hanoi Moment Hotel, a boutique hotel in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, prides itself on customer service.  They arranged for our taxi from the airport so we wouldn’t get scammed and when we pulled up out front, the doorman ran to get our bags and carry them inside.  We were ushered in, presented with fresh mango juice and asked to sit on the couches while they checked us in.  Soon, the very smiley and friendly Jimmy sat down with us to review the amenities of the hotel and room.  When we looked up, our bags had already been taken to our room and Jimmy was escorting into the elevator and upstairs.  As he opened the door, Jimmy informed us that he turned the air conditioning 30 minutes prior to our arrival so our room would be cool for us.  A welcome tray of fruit sat on the bed and along with a complimentary bottle of wine.  The room also has free water, robes, slippers and a WiFi connected laptop plugged in.  It is really beautiful.

Welcome to Hanoi MomentThese things helped Hanoi Moment Hotel to make a great first impression, however it is everything else that has really made us fall in love.  There is a travel desk downstairs run by the very knowledgeable Ching.  She is always eager to help and has been very patient with our many questions.  She took care of booking a tour of Halong Bay which we will embark on tomorrow and also helped book tickets to a theater event.  The best part is the awesome restaurant suggestions.  They are really looking out for us.  They even gave us a list of cab companies we could trust so we wouldn’t fall prey to the scams which are so common.  We originally only booked two nights here, but we like it so much we are staying for a third.  And the most amazing part is how affordable the hotel is.  This wonderful stay is only costing $67 USD per night, including taxes.  Amazing.

Central Hanoi

It isn’t just the hotel that is affordable.  We can’t believe how little things cost here.  We first had to get used to doing the conversion from Vietnamese Dong to the US Dollar.  Twenty-one thousand dong equals one dollar.  Which means that 2,000,000 Dong equals $100. So, it is a little strange to buy two bottles of water and see the price ring up as 28,000.  But, when we stop to think about it, we realize that is less than 2 bucks.  That’s a great deal for two bottles of water!  In addition, the local food we’ve eaten has not only been inexpensive (totaling about 15 bucks for a full dinner with two beers), but it has been delicious.  The staff  have guided us to outstanding places locals choose to eat and we look forward to trying more adventurous dishes.

Temple of LiteratureAside from our interacting with the locals at restaurants and bars, we actually found ourselves engaging in some more typical tourist activities today.  The first place we visited was the Temple of Literature, essentially an academic hall of fame for scholars of Confucius.  This complex looks like a temple, but is not dedicated to religious study. Instead, it honors the teachings of Confucius which are basically focused on how to become the best person you can be (really, how to be a gentleman but I’m trying to be PC).  They have stone stelae with names of doctors who have passed the 82 Confucian exams and some of these date back to the 1400’s.  I’m glad we visited, but overall it was a bit underwhelming.  Perhaps a guide would have been helpful and we maybe could have appreciated it more.

After the Temple of Literature, we went to the Vietnam Military History Museum.  This was easily the most interesting and unsettling thing we saw today.  Of course, we all know the history the US has with Vietnam and I was really interested to visit this museum to see a new perspective.  I didn’t anticipate how upsetting it would be.  Outside the museum they have aircraft which have been captured from the French and the US, and in the center of all of these is a huge sculpture formed from wreckage of downed aircraft.  Looking at this gigantic pile of crumpled metal which had been shot down, thinking about the pilots of these aircraft and reading the plaques which brag about how many planes were brought down made me feel kind of sick.

French and US aircraft

Throughout the whole museum we got a sense of boasting about winning battles, downing aircraft and defeating the enemy.  In one exhibit, they even had the uniform of Lt. Everett Alvarez on display.  He was the first American pilot prisoner of war and one of the longest POWs in American history, having been held for over 8 years.  Seeing his uniform on display like a trophy was surreal.  I’m not sure if I’m describing this right, but the whole museum focused on triumph and victory, nothing about any casualties suffered by the Vietnamese.  They call the Fall of Saigon the Liberation.  They called the Saigon Government the Puppet Government.  The whole thing was so one-sided and filled with propaganda.  Of course, it constantly reminded me of Animal Farm by George Orwell, a book I love and know well from having taught it for 6 years.  It may sound strange, but we could really feel the Communism in this museum. Perhaps it was the giant statue of Vladimir Lenin across the street.  The whole thing was really interesting.At a square in Hanoi

Phil and I wondered, are American war museums like this?  I realize the closest I’ve come to one is the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, but I remember that as being more a display of artifacts, not celebrations of killing.  I can imagine how visiting this museum could be very difficult, especially for members of my parents’ generation.  I’m glad we went, but our response to the exhibits has made us reconsider if we should to go the Hanoi Hilton Museum, the infamous jail where US prisoners of war were held, most notably John McCain.

Our visit to the museum today and our response to those exhibits illustrate for me the reasons why it is important to travel.  Seeing other perspectives, analyzing how information is presented and considering if that is reflected in one’s own culture broadens your horizons and makes you think about things in new ways.  I think that is one of the most valuable things that will come out of this trip.  We can’t wait to continue our journey and explore more of Vietnam.

-Brooke

The waiter had to show Brooke how to eat her Vietnamese pancake with shrimp and bean sprouts. Wrap it in rice paper and dip it in delicious sauce. Yum!

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Exploring, Finances, Hotels, Reflections, Surprises, Temples, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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